Many people interested or involved in classical music are worried about its future. They may reminisce of the ‘good old days’, when children could be caned for misbehaviour and respected their elders enough not to dismiss classical music as something clearly not for them. The public image of classical music inadvertently presented by the media is too often one of a quite snobbish, pretentious and exclusive nature. Though there have been programmes and schemes trying to engage with young people, such as Gareth Malone’s recent exploits in Glyndebourne, these efforts always seem to be from the top down, importing profound art to the unaware, rather than allowing them to discover it for themselves on a fundamental level.

Like a grandfather giving his grandson a Werther’s Original, these top-down imports are about as likely to encourage young people to go to a classical concert as that archetypal grandson is likely to choose a bag of Werther’s over a packet of Haribo. Some would argue that a person’s musical palate matures over time in the same way as their food preferences, suggesting that young people’s apathy towards the world of High Art is inevitable. The Royal Scottish National Orchestra, however, has made real progress with schemes encouraging more young people to attend live classical concerts, proving that it can be done. One of the RSNO’s most successful initiatives has been the Standard Life Passport to Music. The main aim of the scheme is to provide the opportunity for under-16s to see a concert for free, when accompanied by a paying adult. Another scheme, introduced at the same time, offers tickets to under-26s for £5. Both initiatives have had a huge impact on the growth of audiences, with average sales per concert up 12% from last year, and an increase of 18% in attendances by young people. One of the key aspects of the scheme is that it encourages loyalty, so that young people keep coming back for more. Membership cards provide free programmes and complimentary gifts to those who register. This scheme and others has contributed to a huge rise in subscriptions, having risen in Glasgow by 109% since 2005-06, with Edinburgh up 155%. The varied nature of programmes chosen has also had an important role to play. Favourites like Rachmaninov's Rhapsody on a Theme by Paganini are combined with more challenging works like Orion by Saariaho, one of the RSNO's 10 composers of the past decade in their Ten Our of 10 project, which aims to find contemporary orchestral works to stand the test of time.

The Naked Classics concert series has been another genuine success of the RSNO’s, which has attracted record numbers of newcomers to experience their first classical concert in a friendly environment. Talks given before the performance provide answers to “everything you wanted to know about classical music but were afraid to ask” as well as graphical clues during whole performances increasing the accessibility of the music to less experienced audiences. Though some purists may disagree with idea of trying to ‘explain’ music — and I personally believe good music should speak for itself— such background information can be very useful to newcomers to comprehend something alien to them. As Mahler said of the use of programmes for his early symphonies, “When my style still seems strange and new, the listener should get some road-maps and milestones on the journey –or rather, a map of the stars, so that he may comprehend the night sky with its glowing worlds.”

The best thing about the RSNO’s approach here is that it is not trying to force classical music upon younger people; rather that it is looking to make it more affordable and more accessible, so that they can discover their own tastes directly through the music rather than being influenced by associative prejudices.

Simon Birch 2nd July 2010